A medieval manuscript depicting the mutilation of Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, who had his nose cut off. Credit: public domain

Justinian II is known for his brutality as the last Byzantine emperor of the Heraclian dynasty. His reign of terror inspired a popular uprising against his reign, which resulted in his forcibly cutting off his nose; he later replaced it with a gold prosthesis.

Justinian II, the son of Contantine IV, was known as a brutal and oppressive leader, who sought to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory, but did so in a way that involved crushing its enemies mercilessly.

Eldest son of Constantine IV and his wife Anastasia, he assumed the role of emperor in the year 685, when he was only 16 years old.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian II known for his brutality

The successful reign of his father and his many victories prepared Justinian II for success, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire. Justinian, in addition to striking against Arab rulers and acquiring higher rates of annual tribute, also succeeded in negotiating a treaty with Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan to make the island of Cyprus, which control was previously shared between the Arab rulers and the Byzantines, neutral land.

He also regained control of much of the Balkans, which was previously ruled by Slavic tribes. He also captured the city of Thessaloniki from the Bulgarians in 688-689.

Justinian succeeded in subduing the Slavic tribes and using them as a powerful military force numbering 30,000. The emperor then decided to use his newly acquired forces in a series of battles against the Arab rulers. Although he had some success, Justinian II was defeated at the Battle of Sevastopolis after a large part of his Slavic army defected.

Enraged with the defectors, he made it his mission to slaughter as many Slavs as he could, indiscriminately.

He also persecuted religious minorities, especially the Manichaeans, and even Christians whose beliefs were not of Chalcedonian origin.

Despite his brutality, Justinian II tried to protect the rights of the peasants, who were the largest number of potential recruits for military campaigns. He resisted attempts by the aristocrats to usurp the land of the peasants, which made him unpopular with the aristocracy.

He also soon fell out of favor with the peasants, who, despite his earlier support, were against his tax plans. The emperor used the taxes to satisfy his luxurious tastes and to create large, monumental buildings.

Without the peasants and the aristocracy by his side, Justinian II risked losing power.

His religious persecution and brutality also sparked a public uprising among his people, which deposed him in 695 and announced that Leontios, the Strategos of Hellas, would be the new emperor. In order to ensure that Justinian II would never reach the throne again, the angry mob cut off his nose, which was a very common form of mayhem in Byzantine times.

The former cruel tyrant was then exiled to the Crimea. However, Leontios only occupied the throne for three years, before being himself dethroned by Tiberius Apsimarus, who took power.

Justinian II has his nose cut, is exiled, but does not give up

Due to his disfigurement, Justinian II became known as “Rhinotmetos” or “the split nose”. During his exile, he had a gold replica of his nose made and he wore the prosthesis for the rest of his life.

During his stay in Crimea, Justinian II began to devise a plan to regain the throne. He began to muster enough supporters to quickly become a threat to the Emperor. Authorities were to arrest the Emperor in exile to bring him to Constantinople in 702, but he managed to escape and sought refuge with Busir, the khagan of the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkish people.

Busir gave Justinian II land near the Sea of ​​Azov, located north of the Black Sea. He also offered his sister as a wife to the emperor in exile, who renamed her Theodora, in honor of the wife of Justinian I.

Tiberius Apsimarus, aware of the location of the fallen emperor, made a deal with Busir to have Justinian killed.

Busir sent two of his men to his brother-in-law’s home to perform the deed. But Theodora, her sister, warned her husband of the plot, and Justinian II prepared when the men entered her house. According to historical sources, he strangled them both to death with his own hands.

The couple then made a daring escape, returning to Crimea, where Justinian gathered his supporters and began to sail across the Black Sea.

During their voyage, the crew encountered a powerful storm. One of Justinian’s supporters called the Emperor in exile and said that if he promised God that he would not take revenge on those who wronged him and would spare them all, the ship and all on board. would survive the storm.

Justinian, who has always been known for his brutality, did not give up his old ways, declaring, “If I spare one of them, may God drown me here.

Despite this, the ship weathered the storm and Justinian approached Tervel from Bulgaria to support him in his mission to regain control of the empire. He offered in marriage the hand of his daughter Anastasia as well as the crown of Caesar. Tervel accepted.

Justinian II surrendered to the walls of Constantinople in 705, accompanied by an army of 15,000 Bulgarian and Slavic cavalry.

He and his forces waited outside the city gates for three days, hoping the citizens would voluntarily let them in. When they realized the plan was futile, they snuck into a water pipe under the city walls in the dead of night and took control of Constantinople.

Justinian II then became emperor for the second time and broke the rule that said those who had been mutilated could not take the throne.

Drunk with power, the emperor found his rivals, Leontius and Tiberius, and brought them to the Hippodrome in front of a massive crowd.

Byzantine emperor faces second popular uprising

The emperor, with his prosthetic nose of gold shining in the sun, then placed his foot on the necks of his enemies, and declared that they would be beheaded. He also had other political rivals and supporters of his enemies put to death.

Although his first reign saw moments of brutality, Justinian also achieved many significant military successes. His second reign was however marked by defeat, especially in Bulgaria and against the caliphate.

He betrayed Tervel just three years after the Bulgarian ruler provided him with support and troops in 705. Justinian invaded Bulgaria and attempted to take the territory he had offered Tervel in exchange for his support, but was defeated.

Once again, Justinian faced a popular revolution against him in 711, when Crimean rebels launched a rebellion against the ruler. The forces sent to crush the rebellion actually joined it later, creating major problems for Justinian, who was traveling to Armenia at the time.

Forces stormed Constantinople and Justinian, who was traveling, was unable to defend it. He was then arrested and executed.

After his execution, Justinian’s mother took her son, who was only six, to a church for sanctuary, but supporters of Philippicus, the man who took the throne after the rebellion, dragged the child out of the church and murdered him, thus ending the line of Heraclius.